photos by Varun Baker.
Location: Bolivar Gallery, Kingston
“This is not an action. It is a reaction.” The words stuck in my head long after I heard Mutabaruka (the “Barefoot Boss himself” as one of my Facebook friends called him) uttering them on a local TV newscast. He was talking to the students of Marcus Garvey High School, looking majestic in his robes. I could no longer remember the context; but I liked it when he said that whatever it was was a reaction rather than an action because the words seemed to sum up the recent edicts of the Broadcasting Commission and the general attempt to “clean up” the airwaves.
So last night I called Muta to find out what he had meant when he said that. Well, he couldn't remember either as it turned out; it definitely had nothing to do with the BC, he explained as he filled me in on his role in the whole controversy. I had wondered about it everytime I heard his name being used to bolster the arguments made by those who would censor, for as popular talkshow host 'Ragashanti' Stewart noted, Muta's sudden popularity with the establishment is amusing and unprecedented. The Prime Minister, as one headline put it, ordered a “forum on X-rated songs” in response to dub poet, Mutabaruka who, in his address during a reception in recognition of Reggae Month held at Jamaica House “noted that the negative lyrics and explicit images being promoted through the music were eroding the values of the society and impacting negatively on the behaviour of some young people.”
An exultant Ian Boyne gloated that Muta's “strong and unequivocal call for censorship and even punishment by the state has set the cat among the pigeons and has left the UWI defenders of dancehall in a quandary”. When Boyne and people like him critiqued dancehall they were dismissed as narrow-minded, interfering members of the middle classes. “But,” as he went on to say,” they don't know how to deal with Mutabaruka. He has authenticity and no one can get away with saying that he despises black people and their culture.”
So what exactly did he say, I asked Muta, that could have found such favour with these pro-censorship voices? And why? Yu growin old? I asked.
Far from it, Muta responded, on the contrary he was merely articulating a Rasta perspective. He knew there were people who were disappointed that “Muta tek side with government.” “But no,” said Muta firmly, he had not simply sided with the government. If anything “a mi mek the government do something.”
According to Muta it all started with an invitation from Taylor Hall students at UWI asking him to come and show the film Sankofa to mark Black History Month (The poet plays the role of an insurgent slave leader in the film). When Muta arrived with a Rasta friend from Spanish Town they were asked to wait while a dancehall session already in progress concluded before showing the film. Muta and his bredrin had no choice but to be exposed to an hour or two of a non-stop barrage of what he described as “pure pum pum, buddy and gun lyrics” while they waited. More than the raunchy lyrics it was the violence and aggression of the gun songs that upset him. When his friend turned to him in wonder and asked “a university dis?” Muta felt that he absolutely could not subject his friend, clearly unfamiliar with such music, to any more of it. He grabbed up his DVD, and friend in tow, left the scene without showing the film.
The experience disturbed and agitated Muta considerably. He needed to talk to somebody in power, he told his wife, Jacki--someone with the influence to intervene before the music went completely to the dogs. A few days later he was invited to King's House to speak at a reception to mark Reggae Month and decided to express his views on the subject there. Not once did he mention Ramping Shop or the notorious 'daggering' music that was inundating the airwaves because it was the graphic violence of the lyrics that really bothered him, not so much its sexual content.
Look how successfully international gay rights organizations have mobilized themselves against so-called hate lyrics in Jamaican music, he said, contrasting their resolute action with the seeming impotence of the government. “We nah ha no government. Student having sex pon bus. How come dem B-men can stop violent lyrics and the government can't do anything?” Perhaps Tatchell and company should be brought in to address the remaining problems with the music since the government seemed incapable of doing anything about it, he added bitterly.
Muta's words seemed to galvanize the government into action. Prime Minister Bruce Golding subsequently directed the Minister of Information, Culture, Youth and Sports, Olivia Grange, “to organise a task force to discuss concerns raised over the explicitly sexual and violent content of some local songs.” The task force met on February 13th and included Queen Ifrica, Mutabaruka, Tony Rebel and others but as one commentator noted, it seemed one-sided as “only voices against dancehall were heard.”
“A man like me coulda neva fight gainst dancehall” says Muta, explaining that he owes Reggae music his livelihood. But it seemed to him and others within the music fraternity, that things are now worse than they've ever been in terms of hostility and aggression. He is completely against the locking up of DJs for the use of so-called bad words but feels that things have reached a different level when even a hardcore warlord like Bounti Killer is heard saying “Dem man gone too far” in relation to the latest violent lyrics (as he did on the programme “Entertainment Buzz” which preceded Muta's Wednesday night programme on Irie last Sunday). I had to laugh at the thought of the militant, confrontational, uncompromising Bounti deploring the violence of contemporary DJs. We ARE all getting old.
According to Muta he has been saying for a long time that artistes such as Capleton and Sizzla ought to stop their anti-homosexual rants so this is not the first time he has protested the mindless expression of violence in dancehall. His concern is that society seems much more preoccupied and up in arms about blatant sexual expression in music rather than putting brakes on film and video content portraying murder, assault and bodily harm. “How can a family sit down and watch a bloody movie and when the sex part come dey cover up di pikni face?”
Tonight Mutabaruka's programme, The Cutting Edge, will discuss: Is Reggae a beat or the name of Jamaican music after Rocksteady? The panel of guests will include Winston Merritone Blake, Toots Hibbert, Bunny Striker Lee, Ernie Ranglin, Desi Jones and Winston Golding of Swing Disco. 10 pm to 2 am, IRIE FM (107.7).